Excelling in accelerating

Breaking down Houston's 4 new startup accelerator programs

Houston has seen four new accelerators enter the market this year. Photo by Zview/Getty Images

It's official — 2019 is the year of accelerators in Houston. Four different accelerator programs have announced plans to launch Houston programs this year so far — and they are all bringing something different to the table.

All four of the programs represent global programs or big companies recognizing the potential in Houston, which, according to Yael Hochberg, head of the Rice University Entrepreneurship Initiative, is a key part of the equation.

"When you're talking about a place like Houston, what we need here right now is interest from the outside," Hochberg says. "We need some certification by people from the outside that in fact this is a destination for innovation and entrepreneurship."

Houston's most successful accelerator has been homegrown — right out of the Texas Medical Center. TMCx is on its ninth cohort since it launched in 2014.

Also founded in Houston, SURGE Accelerator had a different fate. It launched in 2011 and closed in 2016. Hochberg says there are a number of reasons for the program's demise including disengaged corporations.

"I do feel there's a lot of opportunity around this, and I don't think we should look at SURGE as some sort of indicator of what will happen to an accelerator in the city," she says. "If anything, I would look at TMCx and look at the potential that we see from that."

The biggest benefit to these accelerator programs, Hochberg says, is the new influx of startups that come to Houston. It's not only the accelerators' cohorts, but just the feasibility of the success and resources available. More startups translates to more investments.

"When you have startup activity and good startups, then money, private investment money will follow," Hochbergs says. "Private investment money doesn't just show up."

But bringing in these programs puts the pressure on the city to focus on the environment it's providing new companies and talent. Innovative companies thrive in major metros with things like protected bike lanes, city living, sustainability — and Houston needs to work on these things, Hochberg says, adding that Houston's ability to boast on its single-family homes is less and less attractive to younger demographics.

Building the city up with these types of infrastructure is going to be key when it comes to retaining these startups that accelerators bring in.

"We can create accelerators from here until tomorrow," Hochberg says. "People will send a couple of people down for two days a week to Houston sit at the accelerator, but they'll keep their company somewhere else and not actually move to Houston. Maybe if you're lucky, they'll open up like a little satellite office. We don't want that."

So, what exactly are the differences between these four new startup accelerators? Here's a breakdown of each.

MassChallenge Texas

Photo via greenstreetdowntown.com

MassChallenge Texas first announced its Houston program in January. The Boston-based accelerator program is currently in its final phase of deciding its inaugural cohort. The program is for early stage companies, and is industry agnostic. Jon Nordby, former director of strategy at Houston Exponential, leads the Houston program as managing director.

Launch: July 2019
Location: Downtown Houston
Number of cohort companies: 25
Length: 6 weeks — July through August
Origin: Boston
Requirements: The program looks for applicants that haven't raised more than $500,000 in equity-based funding and have generated less than $1 million in revenue over the past year.
Equity requirements: None.
Prizes on the line: Free office space, mentorship, and, usually, monetary prizes. (Currently, the organization hasn't confirmed cash prizes for the inaugural cohort.)

Founder Institute

Houston's new Founder Institute chapter has teamed up with Alice. Image courtesy Founder Institute

Founder Institute Houston is the earliest stage accelerator that's not associated with a university. Companies must be in the pre-funding stage of growth, and, while 30 companies will be chosen per cohort, only a fraction will complete the full 14 weeks. The Silicon Valley-originated concept now has chapters in almost 200 cities around the world. FI announced its new chapter in Houston in March after first launching in Austin.

Launch: May 2019
Location: Downtown (out of Station Houston)
Number of cohort companies: 30
Length: 14 weeks
Origin: Silicon Valley
Requirements: Company must be pre-funding.
Equity requirements: 4 percent
Prizes on the line: Cash prizes, discounts, access to worldwide alumni network, etc.

Plug and Play Tech Center

Ahead of entering the Houston market later this year, Silicon Valley's Plug and Play hosted three days of programming surrounding innovation in energy and health care. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Plug and Play Tech Center confirmed they were entering the Houston market earlier this month. The Silicon Valley organization has 30 locations all over the world and plans to open five new locations in the United States over the next six months to a year — one being Houston.

Launch: Fourth quarter 2019
Location: Currently scouting for a location.
Number of cohort companies: 20
Length: Three months, twice a year.
Origin: Silicon Valley
Requirements: The program is stage agnostic, but cohorts are focused on a specific industry. Houston's likely to be health and energy/sustainability, though nothing is set in stone.
Equity requirements: None
Prizes on the line: In-house venture capital opportunities, corporate connections, etc.

Ion Smart Cities Accelerator

The historic Sears building in Midtown will transform into The Ion, a Rice University-backed hub for innovation. Courtesy of Rice University

In April, the city announced that Microsoft and Intel were backing a Smart Cities Accelerator program that would accelerate companies with solutions to some of Houston's key problems. The first cohort will be focused on solutions within resilience and transportation, but each cohort will have a different set of issues. With these rotating themes, every cohort will be different.

Launch: September 2019
Location: Station Houston (then later The Ion, when it opens)
Number of cohort companies: 10
Length: 10 months
Requirements: The first set of companies will be chosen for their ability to solve problems within mobility and transportation in Houston. (Other cohorts will have other topics.)
Prizes on the line: Pilot programs and permanent business from the city of Houston.

Capital Factory will have a branded area in The Cannon when it opens its new facility. Courtesy of The Cannon

A major Texas innovation player with roots in Austin has now staffed its recently announced Houston outpost in partnership with The Cannon Houston. Capital Factory hired two Houstonians to help provide resources for its growing Houston-based portfolio companies.

Kendrick Alridge has been hired as mentor coordinator, and Brittany Barreto, who founded Pheramor and WeHaveChemistry, has been named the venture associate. Aldridge will focus on growing and cultivating relationships with Houston mentors, and Barreto is dedicated to reaching out to Houston startups to gauge their potential for Capital Factory participation.

Hiring these Houstonians and having these new boots on the ground is a key factor for Capital Factory as it grows its Houston presence, says Gordon Daugherty, president at Capital Factory.

"It's important for us to think Texas, but act local," Daugherty says. "What that means is we can't just assume that the way we do things and the things that made us successful in Austin will directly translate to Houston. Houston is a different market. That's one of the things we learned from Dallas."

Acting locally entails listening and learning to what the community wants and engaging with local organizations to contribute value to the market.

"We don't know how or in which ways, but we know Houston will be different from Dallas and Austin," Daugherty says. "In this way, we are advantaged by our two employees being from the Houston area. They're our eyes and ears, for one, but they are also the voice of Houston to us along with other ecosystem players."

While local resources and personnel are both new for Capital Factory, the organization already has over 20 portfolio companies that are based in the Houston area. Now, these companies will have new resources close to home and can also act as Capital Factory representatives in the community, Daugherty says.

One of the biggest benefits Capital Factory is bringing into town is investment opportunities. Daugherty says that he predicts that Capital Factory, which tends to invest many small-sum deals, will quickly become the most active early stage investor in Houston. The organization has already made a few investments in Houston companies — and this isn't even counting the dollars invested by the investment partners.

"Our mission, as it pertains to Houston, is to help the best Houston startups get funded. We will tap into our network of investors across the state and country to try to find the best matches."

If Houston can take any indication from Capital Factory's Dallas location, which opened earlier this year, Capital Factory will be making a big impact on Houston startups.

"In 2018, 25 percent of the startups we onboarded into the accelerator were from outside of Austin," Daugherty tells InnovationMap. "The first half of this year, a third or more have come from Dallas alone. And I expect the same from Houston. Next year, easily more than half of our new accelerator companies will be outside of Austin."

Capital Factory will have branded space in The Cannon when it opens its new facility later this month.